Ginger for Pluck,
The Life and Times of Miss Georgina King
by Jennifer M.T. Carter
Ginger for Pluck is the enlightening story of geologist Georgina King who gave her life to science but was rewarded with every kind of skulduggery to prevent her success. Born on 6 June 1845 at Fremantle, Georgina was the daughter of the Rev. George and his wife Jane King who had arrived from Ireland in 1841 after a six month voyage.
Georgina never attended school but taught herself to read and write. To be educated at home was the lot of her generation, class and sex. Her early years were spent in zestful discovery and she was often punished as a result. Her father George knew something about rocks and minerals and Georgina soon became sufficiently interested for the parson to egg on his daughter, even in the face of his wife’s constant disapproval.
He dubbed her his little philosopher, sensing already her love of the natural world. Her ambition in science would know no bounds. He sympathised with his daughter’s thirst for knowledge and encouraged her by bringing her precociousness to the attention of his scientific friends in Sydney.
As Georgina grew up and entered her teens, her mother tried unsuccessfully to fit her into the universally accepted mould, one where young women were biddable and anxious for marriage. Red-haired Miss Georgie, or Ginger for Pluck, as she was soon nicknamed, showed no interest in that direction. Instead she displayed all the Celtic pugnacity of her father.
When she was in her early twenties Darwin’s On the Origin of Species captured Georgina’s attention. As most people of her time were creationists they rejected his ideas unequivocally. At first Georgina read it in secret and as always she was ready to grapple with difficult ideas and to interpret them to her own satisfaction. In doing so she chose science over religion.
During the 1870s several of her immediate family, as well as some good friends, died leaving her as the only child living at home. As she had failed to find a husband she was destined to care for her parents in their old age. When Georgina returned from some extensive travel in Europe in 1883 she found the popularisation of science and technology well under way, but not its democratisation. Lctures were seen as a means of ‘improving the working class’.
Georgina was present at the first congress of what would become the Australian and New Zealanbd Association for the Advancement of Science. At 43 she was a bona fide member of the scientific congress. She was ready to strike out in new directions. It was intended as a brilliant beginning to her career as a geologist. As part of her networking she singled out R.L. Jack from Queensland and T.W. Edgeworth David of New South Wales. Both of them were distinguished government geologists whom she hoped would help further her aspirations.
Unfortunately for Georgina a woman’s place was still considered to be in the home. Tall, ‘unmarriageable’ Miss King was excluded by the professionals, the all-male Royal Society of New South Wales. Famous scientific worthies freely made use of her discoveries and work, without the courtesy of acknowledging her, or even worse, claiming it as their own.
What told against her most was the temerity of her aspirations, an unmarried, unschooled woman who dared trespass onto territory which belonged to the dominant male. Except for her brother-in-law Frederick Humphrey, even her own family was uncomfortable with her decision.
In Ginger for Pluck the authors have shown how Georgina through sheer determination and persistence managed to acquire an honourable place in the history of science and the woman’s place in it. They also have clearly established how Georgina’s life was a study in courage and determination – the story of a principled woman and how life changed her from a generous-hearted human being to one who saw persecution where, possibly, it did not always exist.
During the years 1888-1893 Georgina consulted Sydney’s geologists on a plethora of geological matters. At the age of 47 she became part of Baron von Muller’s celebrated network of collectors. In her 1892 paper Had Eastern Australia a true Devonian Period she, the ‘unschooled, unmarried woman’ proved that Australian geologists had it all wrong. Naturally her discoveries brought her no benefit at all. But she would soon discover that her findings were used by other (male) scientists, and members of the Royal Society of NSW, as their own.
Since women were excluded from membership of the Royal Society she had no choice but to rely on the patronage of other male members. She was on friendly terms with parliamentarians, and her networking among the land and mine owners of NSW was remarkable. This wide circle of acquaintances and friends made her an object of envy among the scientific parvenus of Sydney where plagiarism or theft were not uncommon. With her connections in Academe she was as well placed as anyone to know of the unpleasant state of affairs prevailing within that magic circle.
The authors of Ginger for Pluck have also highlighted the fact that during the first five years of the 1890s, whenever Georgina tried to have her geological papers read on her behalf at the society’s meetings, the ‘scientific clique’, as she called it, at the society’s centre blocked her at every turn. Given the extraordinary circumstances surrounding her life and work, and since history has failed to speak out for this courageous woman the authors have included a large number of Georgina’s letters which will speak for themselves.
Georgina’s flair as a ‘rock-hound’ was well known among the professionals. She did not mind getting her hands dirty in an effort to collect rock, mineral or coal samples. After the death of her parents Georgina made the most of her freedom and at 55 she chose to travel still in pursuit of scientific knowledge.
Her publication of The Mineral Wealth of NSW, for which she had paid by selling her valuable diamond crescent brooch, was removed from sale through the interference of Edgeworth David, professor of geology at the University of Sydney. He was not man enough to admit that an amateur, and a female amateur at that, had upstaged him. No wonder Georgina was sickened by the connivings at the Royal Society of NSW. If this was not bad enough, the ‘scientific wives’, in a desperate attempt to protect their husbands’ careers, continued to mock Georgina.
Finally in 1906 several of her articles were published in the Sydney Morning Herald followed by favourable reviews. But after five years of academic and professional pressure they too declined the publications of her work. However disappointing it must have been for her she was not afraid of going to the top, or even over it, to make her views known, express her disgust or charge them with fraud.
It wasn’t only her research which was stolen from her. When the authors tried to find and read Georgina’s letters to her friend Daisy Bates they found the relevant folder….empty. Their conclusion could only be that by taking these letters the culprits have done their victim no disservice whatsoever. Instead the empty folder argues more eloquently than any written word the case for Miss Georgina King.
The authors’ chance discovery of Georgina King’s personal memoir, which she finished when she was 85, lodged with Sydney’s Mitchell Library for 80 years, led to Miss King’s story at last being told. Embedded within their story are many of the most revered figures of Australian science, the few who encouraged her early interest and the majority who tried to destroy her spirit.
Daisy Bates’ prediction to Georgina that ‘Recognition will come’ has prevailed with the publication of this intriguing story of a remarkable woman, a talented amateur, who during her life often faced ridicule and was rejected by the upstaged professionals.
Review by Nic Klaassen
Ginger for Pluck by Carter and Cross, Telephone 08 8352 4455
includes black and white photographs, end notes, bibliography and index.
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